Tales of the Unexpected

In Cricket World Cup by Bill Ricquier

Is COVID the explanation for everything that has happened since?

Time is a curious and mysterious concept and the pandemic definitely made it seem more so. I was thinking about this as I sat down to enjoy a delicious Malay dinner in a friend’s apartment here in Singapore in the early evening of Sunday 19 November. My feeling of immense well-being instilled by the company and the food was only slightly diminished by the inescapable fact that enjoying this dinner would inevitably mean missing a significant part of the Men’s Cricket World Cup final taking place at that very time in Ahmedabad, between India and Australia.

What on earth has that got to do with COVID, or time, you might reasonably ask. Well, on the face of it, nothing really. But, as it happens, two of our fellow guests on this delicious evening happened to have been our hosts for a memorable firework-accompanied dinner on a sea-side terrace in front of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes on the evening of Bastille Day, 14 July 2019. So what, again I hear you say. Well, that was the day of the last Men’s Cricket World Cup final at Lord’s between England and New Zealand. I had been following the game all day but we had to leave for dinner as Jos Buttler fell, just as he and Ben Stokes had appeared to be guiding England to victory. Of course, they got there in the end – it would have been interesting to see that happening live, as it were.

My point is this. From whatever perspective, whether viewed at the time, or in hindsight, July 2019 seems a long, long time before COVID. And similarly, looking back now, although people are still getting COVID – in fact I think we know more people who have had it recently than at the time we were all desperately worried about it – the era of the lockdown and all the rest of it seems like a distant, unrecognisable past world. The ODI World Cup cycle of four years seems, in the great scheme of things, a relatively short timespan. But the pandemic, while it was happening, seemed to last forever. That is what I mean by the curious and mysterious nature of time.

I think this must have somehow been a factor in England’s lamentable performance in the 2023 World Cup. Almost everyone thought England would be contenders; this was largely because of their stellar performance in the 2019 edition. The two squads were very similar indeed; of the eleven who played against New Zealand at Lord’s in 2019, seven – plus Moeen Ali who did not play at Lord’s – formed the nucleus of most playing elevens in India; of the missing four, two had retired and one was injured. For a variety of reasons, though, England actually played relatively little ODI cricket between 2019 and 2023 – the eleven who played at Lord’s never played together again. When England did play ODIs the best players were often not available – sometimes COVID was not entirely irrelevant here, but often it was just impossible scheduling.

Something else happened during this period, though. In the year or so leading up to the summer of 2022, England came to be regarded, deservedly, as a very poor Test side; at one point they won one game out of seventeen and lost eleven. Everything changed with the appointment of Stokes as captain and Brendon McCullum as coach in that summer. Suddenly they were one of the best Test teams in the world, playing five-day cricket with the braggadocio of a successful white-ball team, which England had been between 2015 and 2019. To add to the mix, at the end of 2022 England won the T20 World Championship in Australia, a real triumph for their white ball leaders, Buttler and coach Matthew Mott. Who would be turning up in India for the 2023 World Cup, the 2019 champions, the 2022 champions or the 2022-23 innovators? Well, none of the above, it seemed. Not everyone thought England would win the trophy, but few would have imagined that they would spend most of the tournament scuttling around among the bottom three.

England’s performance aside, I really enjoyed the World Cup. Timing was great and for about seven weeks there was entertaining cricket to watch on TV every day. True, there were few really exciting matches but there was some very good and watchable cricket. There is more room for nuance and narrative in fifty-over matches than in twenty-over ones. As Michael Atherton said, ODIs have more in common with Test cricket than they do with T20. Even though it makes for a longer competition, I think the “all play all” format is more satisfactory and fairer than dividing the teams into groups.

There was, as I say, some splendid cricket. I saw Virat Kohli’s fiftieth ODI century, beating the record of Sachin Tendulkar, who sat in the crows watching benignly. I saw two centuries by New Zealand’s new star, Rachin Ravindra. I saw some masterful bowling by India’s Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah. There was some spectacular batting by South Africa’s middle order, especially David Miller’s brilliant century in the semi-final against Australia. There was Glenn Maxwell.

India looked unstoppable from the beginning to, well almost the end. In their first match, against Australia at Chennai, chasing a target of 200, they were two for three after two overs. They won by six wickets. That said it all really. They won all the round-robin games and the semi-final without ever being threatened. The only issue was one of balance. The loss of Hardik Pandya to injury meant that the tail started at number eight. While the top five were batting so well this didn’t seem to matter, and Pandya’s absence let Shami in and he finished up one of the tournament’s leading wicket takers.

Australia had a more challenging route to the final. They lost their first two matches but then started to find form. They almost came a cropper against Afghanistan at Mumbai. Afghanistan made 291 for five. Australia were 91 for seven in the 19th over when captain Pat Cummins joined Maxwell. The situation looked hopeless. A fortnight or so earlier, against The Netherlands in Delhi, Maxwell had made 106 off 44 balls, but even so… What followed was truly astonishing. Maxwell and Cummins put on 202 and Australia won with 19 balls to spare. Maxwell made 201 not out off 128 balls with 21 fours and ten sixes; Cummins made 12 off 68 balls. Towards the end, Maxwell was so badly affected by cramp that he could not run – he could barely walk. He just stood there and whacked it.

The final itself was an extraordinary game. India were clearly favourites. Quite a few pundits thought they might fall in the knock-out stage, but that this was likely to occur in the semi-final, as happened in 2019 when they lost a thriller to New Zealand. This time they played New Zealand again and, despite a great century by Daryl Mitchell, basically swept them aside.

The final was played on a used pitch. Opinions appear to differ as to whether this rather important decision was made by the ICC or the BCCI. Whatever the truth of the matter, if it was somehow intended to benefit the home side, it backfired badly.

Then there was the toss. Cummins won it and astonished many of the cognoscenti by electing to field. Opinions had differed, and changed, throughout the tournament, as to what it was best to do, a key factor being the dew, which sometimes played a role once the lights were on and sometimes didn’t. India had batted first in each of their last six matches, and of course won all of them, some by massive margins. Anyway, Cummins knew what he wanted to do, and he did it.

Was he having doubts towards the end of the first powerplay? In the ninth over, India were 76 for one, and Rohit Sharma was doing what he had done all tournament – he had made 47 with four fours and three sixes. He then fell to a brilliant running and diving catch by Travis Head off Maxwell. And everything changed.

Shreyas Iyer was caught behind off Cummins a couple of overs later. At this point I had to leave, but the scorecard tells an illuminating story of what happened. Kohli hit four boundaries in his 54. K L Rahul, who had had a fine tournament, scored 66 off 107 balls, with one four. Suryakumar Yadav and Shami hit one four each. India were all out for 240 in exactly 50 overs.

Was it enough? it is often said that you cannot tell how challenging a target is till the second side has started batting. And these relatively small targets are often more difficult than they seem. At Lord’s in 2019 England’s target was 242. Many people thought, or at least hoped, that this game would be similar to that.

When Australia were 47 for three in the seventh over, that seemed possible. It was at that point that I got home, just after Steve Smith was out leg before to Bumrah for four. But that was it for India. Head was magnificent, making 137 off 120 balls with fifteen fours and four sixes. Marnus Labushagne was the ideal accomplice, making 58 not out off 110 balls. Maxwell hit the winning runs in the 43rd over. It was a breeze. A look at the scorecard is again revealing: India’s spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav, such a force in the earlier games, took nought for 99 in their combined 20 overs – Head and Labushagne just saw them off; Shami took one for 47 in seven overs.

If I had to pick a player of the tournament it would be Cummins. His role in that victory against Afghanistan cannot be overestimated. Facing the 43rd over of the innings from Rashid Khan, Cummins played out a maiden. Just think about it: the 43rd over of a 50-over rub chase with a target of 292 and it’s a maiden: has that ever happened in the history of ODI cricket? Are Afghanistan that good, you might ask. Well, they came sixth in the tournament, ahead of England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and Khan is recognised to be one of the best white ball bowlers in the world. Maxwell couldn’t run. If Australia were going to win he had to get the runs, but it was crucial that Cummins didn’t get out. A maiden was the perfect solution.

In the semi-final at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, South Africa made only 212. When Australia’s seventh wicket fell on 193, it looked very tight. That brought in Cummins. James Anderson, talking about the game on the Tailenders podcast, said he knew at that point that Australia were going to win. That says a lot about Cummins; it will come as no surprise to anyone who followed the 2023 Ashes.

He bowled superbly in the final, taking two for 34 in his ten overs, dismissing Kohli and Iyer. He handled his attack brilliantly, rushing through his “reserve” bowlers, often in one-over spells, while Kohli and Rahul were trying to rebuild. Then there was Australia’s outfielding which was fantastic – Head’s catch was outstanding but just an example really – these things don’t happen by accident.

So in the last nine months Cummins has won the World Test Championship, defended the Ashes in England and won the 50-over World Cup. It would be interesting to know which of these he and his teammates are proudest of. It must be hard to beat winning a cup final. Of course for Australia to win a Men’s World Cup can hardly be regarded as unexpected. They have now won six, and been losing finalists twice; no other team has won more than two finals. And this time really did seem different. To defeat India at home before a crowd of about 125,000 was a real achievement. It may not have been a great game, but it was a great victory, comparable in its way to India’s victory over West Indies at Lord’s in 1983.

Ah yes, the crowd. Well, Cummins said the Australians would silence the crowd, and he was right. The successful run chase took place in something approaching silence. At first I was irritated by the relative lack of recognition in the crowd for Head’s magnificent achievement, but I suppose the silence is in its own way a mark of respect. And anyway I am reluctant to knock Indian crowds. At many games, including neutral games, the atmosphere was by all accounts fantastic – the opening match, between England and New Zealand, also at Ahmedabad, was an obvious exception. And Indian crowds are a big part of the reason why the game we love is the second most popular sport in the world.

There was one spectator who mattered more than any other. No, not Tendulkar, but the man in whose honour the vast stadium was named, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He must have been looking forward to presenting the World Cup to Sharma in his own stadium. As it was he had to hand it over to the wrong captain, smile fleetingly through almost visibly gritted teeth, and then flee, leaving a slightly perplexed Cummins on his own on the podium. Of course most of the crowd had left some time before.

Finally, what could well be a pub quiz question for you. Who presented the World Cup to England captain Eoin Morgan at Lord’s in 2019? The answer will only go to show how long ago July 2019 really was. +

+ It was the Duke of York.

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